See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:1–2).
Have you ever read a bumper sticker and wished you had written it? Shortly after Focus on the Family relocated their ministry to Colorado Springs, cars began touting sentiments for this organization. I was particularly intrigued by one that read something like, “Focus on the Whole Church as God’s Family!” What was their point?
An overemphasis on the nuclear family lacks biblical perspective. While marriage is sacred and parenting highly revered in Scripture, the family that the Bible deals with most often is God’s family — God’s New Covenant community. If, as it appears, Scripture is most concerned with the “family of God” rather than the nuclear family, does inauguration into God’s New Covenant family alter the way we function as men and women? If Christ redeems all of life, does our rebirth in Christ redeem gender-hierarchy in human families as well as in the family of God?
As egalitarians, we answer yes to these questions! But, in doing so we are often misunderstood. For example, a recent article in Christianity Today (June 2008) suggests that egalitarians appeal more to liberal political thought than to Scripture. Yet, it is our appeal to Scripture which has led to a burgeoning of books, articles, conferences, and discussion on gender and faith. Our appeal to Scripture also separates secular feminists (who locate their feminist ideals apart from Scripture) from egalitarians (who find their feminist ideals within the Bible). With the success of women and freed slaves on the mission field during the 1800–1900s, Christians like A.J. Gordon, Catherine Booth, John Wesley, Fredrik Franson, Sojourner Truth, and Katharine Bushnell challenged gender and ethnic prejudice with a robust biblicism — an ideal that has come to characterize evangelicals.
Like those of the 1800–1900s, egalitarians today believe Galatians 3:27–29 speaks not only of salvation but also of life in the community of believers. Our soteriology (what we understand about salvation) shapes our ecclesiology (what we understand about the church), as F.F. Bruce and Gordon Fee note. In the Old Covenant, circumcision was the outer expression of a covenantal relationship with God, and only men were circumcised. In the New Covenant, baptism becomes the public expression of one’s inclusion in God’s family, and baptism is open to any person, male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free.
According to Paul, to be baptized with Christ is to be clothed in Christ, so that God no longer views our sins but sees that we are clothed in Christ, as Paul notes in Galatians 3:27–29: “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”
To be clothed in Christ not only realigns our identity and status with respect to God. Our union with Christ also redefines our status with respect to one another. As Christ established peace between sinners and God, so Christ also works peace and mutuality between the members of his body — the church. Our redemption directly influences our relationships to one another because Christ gives us power to oppose sins that create inequities and divisions in the body of Christ.
Paul boldly suggests in Galatians 3:28 that Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, males and females are all one in Christ. He offered these words to a world in which slavery and the subordination of women were normative. To such a world, Paul declared that we are no longer defined by what we inherit from our earthly parents (class, ethnicity, and gender). Though we are heirs of our human family, as Christians what we inherit from God matters more! If our ultimate birthright comes from God, then our sisters and brothers in Christ receive the same inheritance. Together we inherit salvation — the forgiveness of sins. We also receive sanctification — God’s power working in us to oppose and resist sin. And, we receive spiritual gifts, which equip us for ministry, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or class.
While Paul did not overturn slavery or the cultural bondage of women during his lifetime, he planted the seeds of liberation both in his writings, and in his work with Onesimus and Philemon and the women who worked beside him in the gospel! Though we live in a fallen world where sin oppresses people because of ethnicity, gender, and class, Paul daringly suggests that through the Cross, these are irrelevant and ultimately impotent. That is why Paul asks masters and slaves to live as brothers and sisters (Col. 3:22–4:1 and Eph. 6:5–9). Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus is better than a slave because he is his brother in Christ (Philem. 15–16).
Galatians 3:28 (a verse inscribed on numerous ancient baptismal fonts) reveals our fullest redemptive opportunities, including not only salvation, but also sanctification and reconciliation. In Galatians, Paul does not propose that gender, ethnicity, or class is eliminated in Christ. Rather, through Christ these distinctions now bring strength and vitality to Christ’s New Covenant Community. Paul lived out this vitality in his evangelistic work beside Gentiles, slaves, and women coworkers such as Priscilla, Eunice, and Lois; house church leaders like Chloe, Nympha, the elect lady, and Apphia; deacons like Phoebe; and also Junia the apostle. Our redemption directly influences our relationship to one another as Galatians 3:28 and many other passages teach (Matt. 20:25–28, Phil. 2:1–15, etc). This is part of the new wine Jesus celebrates in Mark 2:22. Indeed, the blessings of Christ reach as far as the curse is found. Joy to the world, the Savior has come; let everyone rejoice that the old has been made new!